Refined Excess - A statement on my music


This text is based on a text originally written in Dutch in 2005 for the benefit of people who don't have much familiarity with my work but who had to judge my scores. I think however that it might be interesting for everybody who'd like to know something about how I work and think. So here's an English version, for the entire Internet to enjoy.

        Texture, melody, meter

In composing, I have often aimed at a kind of panoramic polyphony. From my piece Toccata III for 2 Glockenspiels (2001) on especially, my technical ideas on this developped gradually. By "panorama" I mean: a complete equality of all voices. A number of voices are moving simultaneously through some musical space, and in the process, no single voice is carrying the musical argument more than any other one, none is functioning as a central voice.

In my panoramas I usually try to achieve a certain homogeneity or compactness. Every time I apply this principle, what I try to achieve is the possibility that the voices become entangled for the ear, so that different voices may seem to feed into one another. Clear differentations of function, like melody and accompaniment, are avoided. The voices in the panorama move within the same parametric space, or within closely related parametric spaces: it should be possible to relate the rhythm, articulation, timbre, tempo and dynamics of different voices to each other. The melodic material of the voices, as well, is preferably strongly related or even identical, so that you can find mirrorings in the melodic realm as well (canons, imitations, heterophony.)

Melodically, it often turns out to be necessary to write extremely simple, almost primitive shapes. Within the melodic material itself I often opt for possibilities to lead the ear along different paths at the same time using simple means. Among these a conscious and consistent use of Sekundgang (relations between consecutive top and bottom notes in compound melodic contours.) Melodies are often put together as mosaics of small, atomic note-groups, in which every note-group is characterized by a very simple and therefore very clear type of motion (ascending, descending, alternating between two notes, etc.)

My melodic structure often contains a metrical character, which corresponds to the melodic contour. A metrical unit will coincide with an atomic group of notes with a characteristic motion-type, and whenever the melody goes from one such grouplet to the next this is heard as a metrical time-point. Even if I hardly ever write time signatures and even if in many spots, I have used exclusively eighth notes in my notation, I'm always conscious of this metrical character and of rhythm. A meter can arise from a simple repetition of melodic motives. If, within one panorama, different voices, which all have their own metrical character or their own tempo, enter into an audible relationship to one another, what I call a meta-meter may result: a complex metrical experience in which individual metrical layers are submerged.

For listeners, all this leads to a free, multi-dimensional sonic experience. In many pieces of mine listeners are given the possibility either to follow specific voices, or to follow relationships between certain voices, or to follow the resultant total: but it's hardly possible to follow all aspects at the same time.


In using this type of texture, which is all about an internal motion that happens between a number of voices, it's often less desirable to use a type of form that depends primarily on well-timed rhetorical gestures and impressive dramatic shifts. Rather, I would give the listener some time so that he or she can find his or her way within the panoramic texture. In the most extreme cases, form is entirely an emerging phenomenon that happens in the listener's mind: emerging from the way his or her attention is ambling through musical space, all by itself, just by listening.

        Coordination between parts

In many pieces of recent years I have dropped the idea of written-out coordination between parts. I feel that the kind of counting that goes with standard notation is not what my music is about. It is not to my taste to see a group of musicians get the coordination of their parts right by moving together according to a meter that you don't hear and which the composer doesn't even want you to hear, and I certainly dislike the related phenomenon, all too common in new music, of the conductor as a luxury type of metronome. Fixations on the wrong kind of rhythmical precision can in fact also be bad for the beauty of the sound itself.

For that reason, over the years I have explored ways to coordinate parts differently, for example through the use of stopwatch, or of cues etc. in a great diversity of variations. Of course, with techniques like these in which minute details of coordination are no longer fixed a score is no longer necessary. Generally, in works in which there's no role for a conductor I no longer write a score - there are only parts.


Notation is not meant to describe a sound, but to instruct a performer. I make many notational decisions based on what kind of playing they suggest - my method of instruction will influence the attitude of the performer, and therefore it will influence the character, the atmosphere, of a performance. Anything that I do not need towards this goal I will try not to notate. For example, I'll only write a time signature if I want there to be explicit metrical counting independent of melodic shape (as indicated above, in many cases meter is already an implicit part of the melodic shape.) Whenever it is possible to get to a musical result by using a suggestive verbal explanation instead of a fully fleshed-out notation I prefer the verbal instruction.

Often, I try to maintain a very basic 'notational vocabulary' in a piece or in a movement. The decision as to which notational means I'm going to employ and which I'm not going to employ is to me part of the composition. Whatever I choose not to notate is as much part of compositional decision-making as are the things I do choose to notate.


In certain pieces written over the past few years certain aspects of performance are left indeterminate. Whenever I do this, I make sure that performers know exactly what decision he or she is supposed to take, and what kind of difference such performer decisions will make. In such pieces, I do not compose specific sounds, but I do compose the decision process of the performers and by that, a psychology or theatrical charge. A complex decision that has to be made in little time for instance may be an instrument of tension.

The choices that a performer has to make are never arbitrary. It's never just a choice between, say, three notes that could just as well have been three other notes, but it's always a choice with a dramatic meaning. Often it involves timing, and often in such a way that performers will have to react to one another (this happens in the middle part of Eindig Stuk for example.)

        Refined excess

The intention with all of this is to reach, in a controlled way, an unknowably rich musical experience. A subtle instability of the musical event. To lead a musical language that is in principle clear and accessible to the limits of its own perceptibility. To cause excesses of meaningful, comprehensible motions and nuances from simple materials. A music that is perfectly logical in ways that are not entirely controllable. A friendly confusion. A refined excess.

For more on metametrics, Kyle Gann's weblog has many entries on the subject - in fact his weblog is the place where the word metametrics was coincd